Biography of Nikita Khrushchev, Cold War Era Soviet Leader

Nikita Khrushchev addressing the United Nations
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev addressing the United Nations.

Getty Images 

Nikita Khrushchev (April 15, 1894—September 11, 1971) was the leader of the Soviet Union during a critical decade of the Cold War. His leadership style and expressive personality came to represent Russian's hostility toward the United States in the eyes of the American public. Khrushchev's aggressive stance against the West culminated in the standoff with the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Fast Facts: Nikita Khrushchev

  • Full Name: Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev
  • Known For: Leader of the Soviet Union (1953–1964)
  • Born: April 15, 1894, in Kalinovka, Russia
  • Died: September 11, 1971 in Moscow, Russia
  • Spouse's Name: Nina Petrovna Khrushchev

Early Life

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev was born April 15, 1894, in Kalinovka, a village in southern Russia. His family was poor, and his father at times worked as a miner. By the age of 20 Khrushchev had become a skilled metalworker. He hoped to become an engineer, and married an educated woman who encouraged his ambitions.

Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Khrushchev's plans changed profoundly as he joined the Bolsheviks and began a political career. During the 1920s he rose from obscurity to a position as an apparatchik in the Ukrainian Communist Party.

In 1929, Khrushchev moved to Moscow and took a position with the Stalin Industrial Academy. He rose to positions of increasing political power in the Communist Party and was undoubtedly complicit in the violent purges of the Stalin regime.

During World War II, Khrushchev became a political commissar in the Red Army. Following the defeat of Nazi Germany, Khrushchev worked at rebuilding Ukraine, which had been devastated during the war.

He began to gain attention, even to observers in the West. In 1947 the New York Times published an essay by journalist Harrison Salisbury headlined "The 14 Men Who Run Russia." It contained a passage on Khrushchev, which noted that his current job was to bring the Ukraine fully into the Soviet fold and that, in order to do so, he was carrying out a violent purge.

In 1949, Stalin brought Khrushchev back to Moscow. Khrushchev became involved in the political intrigue within the Kremlin which coincided with the Soviet dictator's failing health.

Rise to Power

Following Stalin's death on March 5, 1953, Khrushchev began his own rise to the top of the Soviet power structure. To outside observers, he was not viewed as a favorite. The New York Times published a front-page article following Stalin's death citing four men expected to succeed the Soviet leader. Georgy Malenkov was presumed to be the next Soviet leader. Khrushchev was mentioned as one of about a dozen figures believed to hold power within the Kremlin.

In the years immediately following Stalin's death, Khrushchev managed to outmaneuver his rivals, including notable figures such as Malenkov and Vyacheslav Molotov. By 1955, he had consolidated his own power and was essentially leading the Soviet Union.

Khrushchev chose not to become another Stalin, and actively encouraged the process of de-Stalinization that followed the dictator's death. The role of the secret police was curtailed. Khrushchev was involved in the plot which ousted the feared head of the secret police, Lavrenti Beria (who was tried and shot). The terror of the Stalin years was denounced, with Khrushchev evading his own responsibility for purges.

In the realm of foreign affairs, Khrushchev aggressively challenged the United States and its allies. In a famous outburst aimed at Western ambassadors in Poland in 1956, Khrushchev said the Soviets would not have to resort to war to defeat its adversaries. In a quote that became legendary, Khrushchev bellowed, "Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you."

On the World Stage

As Khrushchev enacted his reforms within the Soviet Union, the Cold War defined the era internationally. The United States, led by World War II hero President Dwight Eisenhower, sought to contain what was viewed as Russian communist aggression in trouble spots around the world.

In July 1959, a relative thaw in Soviet-American relations occurred when an American trade fair opened in Moscow. Vice president Richard Nixon traveled to Moscow and had a confrontation with Khrushchev that seemed to define the tensions between the superpowers.

The two men, standing next to a display of kitchen appliances, debated the relative virtues of communism and capitalism. The rhetoric was tough, but news reports noted that no one lost their temper. The public argument became instantly famous as "The Kitchen Debate" was reported as a tough discussion between determined adversaries. Americans got an idea of Khrushchev's stubborn nature.

A few months later, in September 1959, Khrushchev accepted an invitation to visit the United States. He stopped in Washington, D.C., before traveling to New York City, where he addressed the United Nations. He then flew to Los Angeles, where the trip seemed to veer out of control. After expressing abrupt greetings to local officials who welcomed him, he was taken to a movie studio. With Frank Sinatra acting as the master of ceremonies, dancers from the film "Can Can" performed for him. The mood turned bitter, however, when Khrushchev was informed that he would not be allowed to visit Disneyland.

The official reason was that local police couldn't guarantee Khrushchev's safety on the long drive to the amusement park. The Soviet leader, who was not used to being told where he could go, erupted in anger. At one point he bellowed, according to news reports, "Is there an epidemic of cholera there or something? Or have gangsters taken control of the place that can destroy me?"

At one appearance in Los Angeles, the mayor of Los Angeles, made reference to Khrushchev's famous "we will bury you" remark from three years earlier. Khrushchev felt he had been insulted, and threatened to return immediately to Russia.

Nikita Khrushchev eating a hot dog.
In Iowa, Khrushchev enjoyed his first hot dog. Getty Images 

Khrushchev took a train northward to San Francisco, and the trip turned happier. He praised the city and engaged in friendly banter with local officials. He then flew to Des Moines, Iowa, where he toured American farms and happily posed for the cameras. He then visited Pittsburgh, where he debated with American labor leaders. After returning to Washington, he visited Camp David for meetings with President Eisenhower. At one point, Eisenhower and Khrushchev visited the president's farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Khrushchev's tour of America was a media sensation. A photo of Khrushchev visiting an Iowa farm, smiling broadly as he waved an ear of corn, appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine. An essay in the issue explained that Khrushchev, despite appearing friendly at times during his trip, was a difficult and unyielding adversary. The meetings with Eisenhower had not gone very well.

The following year, Khrushchev returned to New York to appear at the United Nations. In an incident that became legendary, he disrupted the proceedings of the General Assembly. During a speech by a diplomat from the Philippines, which Khrushchev took as insulting to the Soviet Union, he removed his shoe and began rhythmically banging it against his desktop.

To Khrushchev, the incident with the shoe was essentially playful. Yet it was portrayed as front-page news that seemed to illuminate Khrushchev's unpredictable and threatening nature.

Cuban Missile Crisis

Serious conflicts with the United States followed. In May 1960, an American U2 spy plane was shot down over Soviet territory and the pilot was captured. The incident provoked a crisis, as President Eisenhower and allied leaders had been planning for a scheduled a summit meeting with Khrushchev.

The summit occurred, but it went badly. Khrushchev accused the United States of aggression against the Soviet Union. The meeting essentially collapsed with nothing accomplished. (The Americans and Soviets eventually made a deal to swap the U2 plane's pilot for an imprisoned Russian spy in America, Rudolf Abel.)

The early months of the Kennedy administration were marked by accelerated tensions with Khrushchev. The failed Bay of Pigs Invasion created problems, and a June 1961 summit between Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna was difficult and produced no real progress.

John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna
President Kennedy and Khrushchev at their Vienna summit.  Getty Images

In October 1962, Khrushchev and Kennedy became forever linked in history as the world suddenly seemed to be on the brink of nuclear war. A CIA spy plane over Cuba had taken photographs which showed launch facilities for nuclear missiles. The threat to America's national security was profound. The missiles, if launched, could strike American cities with virtually no warning.

The crisis simmered for two weeks, with the public becoming aware of the threat of war when President Kennedy gave a televised speech on October 22, 1962. Negotiations with the Soviet Union eventually helped defuse the crisis, and the Russians ultimately removed the missiles from Cuba.

In the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Khrushchev's power in the Soviet power structure began to decline. His efforts to move on from the dark years of Stalin's brutal dictatorship were generally admired, but his domestic policies were often seen as disorganized. In the realm of international affairs, rivals in the Kremlin viewed him as erratic.

Fall From Power and Death

In 1964 Khrushchev was essentially deposed. In a Kremlin power play, he was stripped of his power and forced to go into retirement.

Khrushchev lived a comfortable retired life in a house outside Moscow, but his name was purposely forgotten. In secret, he worked on a memoir, a copy of which was smuggled out to the West and eventually. Soviet officials denounced the memoir as a forgery. It is considered an unreliable narration of events, yet it is believed to be Khrushchev's own work.

On September 11, 1971, Khrushchev died four days after suffering a heart attack. Though he died in a Kremlin hospital, his front-page obituary in the New York Times noted that the Soviet government had not issued an official statement on his passing.

In the countries he had delighted in antagonizing, Khrushchev's death was treated as major news. However, in the Soviet Union, it was largely ignored. The New York Times reported that a small item in Pravda, the official government newspaper, reported his death, but avoided any praise of the man who had dominated Soviet life for a decade.

Sources:

  • "Khrushchev, Nikita." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography, edited by Laura B. Tyle, vol. 6, UXL, 2003, pp. 1083-1086. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 8, Gale, 2004, pp. 539-540. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Taubman, William. "Khrushchev, Nikita Sergeyevich." Encyclopedia of Russian History, edited by James R. Millar, vol. 2, Macmillan Reference USA, 2004, pp. 745-749. Gale Virtual Reference Library.